Peninsula counties have child care chasm

Child care is a major problem for families in both Clallam and Jefferson counties.

Parents of an estimated 370 kids in Clallam County are in dire straits when finding someone to mind their children, a challenge affecting one-third of all families, two child care advocates said in late March.

That vacuum is sucking the life out of one- and two-parent families in Jefferson County, too — and it’s twice as serious.

There, 73 percent of families have inadequate access to child care, and 210 more slots would fill the need, according to a 2020 state Department of Commerce report that repeatedly refers to Washington’s child care “desert.”

Jefferson is far from oasis status. It ranks fifth worst among the state’s 39 counties in supply adequacy of child care, according to Commerce’s June 30 Washington Child Care Industry Assessment Report, which says there is child care capacity for 41 percent of young children statewide.

If North Olympic Peninsula families do find child care, it’s expensive, taking away huge chunks of annual income, the advocates said on March 31.

“It’s a huge, huge, huge issue,” said Joy Sheedy, co-chair, with Yvette Cline, of the PW! (Prevention Works!) child care Task Force.

The former child care professionals and current board members of the volunteer nonprofit group Prevention Works! outlined Clallam County’s child care state of affairs at the Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce’s weekly online meeting.

The grim picture includes exhausted friends and family members — frequently grandparents — who account for a major portion of unofficial child care providers asked to give more and more as the paid-provider pool shrinks.

The Clallam County gap translates to 900 families struggling to find care for their children, according to the statewide report.

That need is especially acute in Port Townsend, where one-third of the population and six of the county’s 10 largest employers are located, task force member and meeting participant Lynn Keenan said in an interview.

“Families want to have child care near their place of employment,” said Keenan, a 30-hour-a-week child care community organizer employed by the Clallam County Economic Development Council under a Department of Commerce grant.

Keenan is sifting through and compiling federal, state and county data that’s helping to set a provider recruitment agenda for Prevention Works!

The organization has rented a billboard just east of Port Angeles beseeching U.S. Highway 101 motorists to “Help Build Our Future” by working in child care.

It directs them to the Prevention Works! website at pw4kids.org, where a 7½-minute recruitment video enlists testimonials and data from mothers and government officials, some of whom fill both roles.

“In Clallam County, it’s actually pretty challenging to find a child care provider that serves the age of children the parents are looking for, (and) the hours, and that is affordable,” Kelsi Millet of the Peninsula College Early Childhood Development Center says on the video.

The next frame switches to a graphic that shows 61 percent of children live where all the adults work outside the home.

“I’ve had friends and coworkers who are literally in their last week of maternity leave and have to ask for additional time off because they have been unable to locate a single provider for their child, let alone choose between multiple providers to see what fits their family best,” Elizabeth Stanley, the mother of two children, says next.

“That’s a huge source of stress for young parents and a huge source of stress for employers as well.”

There are at least 58 child care centers and other licensed providers in Clallam County, Keenan said.

The number of child care providers in Clallam County shrank by 29 percent between 2013 and 2020, according to the video.

Keenan gave a similar online presentation March 3 during EDC Director Colleen McAleer’s weekly Coffee with Colleen online meeting.

“Child care is at a tipping point,” Keenan said at the meeting.

“It’s at something of a crisis point around accessibility and affordability.”

Statewide, 46 percent of parents have had to take time off because of lack of child care, Keenan said.

Thirty-nine percent have reduced their hours of employment, and 18 percent have been forced to refuse or pass up a promotion, making a stark decision but the only choice between livelihood and their little ones.

Finding affordable child care, seeking backup care when a provider is sick or on vacation, setting a schedule that fits a work schedule, tending to sick children, finding transportation, “and what do you do when the schools are closed” — all are issues that parents struggle with, Sheedy said.

Then there’s the price tag. The average cost for child care for toddlers ages 2-5 in the state is $750 a month, “a pretty big chunk of money when you’re a low-income family,” Sheedy said.

According to state report, the annual median price of full-time care in a family child care home ranges from $14,500 for infant care and $12,000 in King County to $9,200 for infant care and $7,400 for preschool in mostly rural counties.

“Families that have an infant and a child of preschool age in the least affordable counties could spend as much as 35 percent of their income for full-time care in center-based settings and as much as 29 percent in family child care settings,” according to the report.

For full-time care at a median price, single mothers in Clallam County spend from 37 percent of their income for preschool family home care to 59 percent for infant-center care, the ninth highest in Washington for infant care and eighth highest, with two other counties, for preschool family home care.

Two-parent households pay 15 percent for infant care and 10 percent for preschool.

In Jefferson County, two-parent households pay 11 percent of their income for preschool family home care and 18 percent for infant-center care. Single mothers pay 49 percent for infant-center care and 31 percent for preschool.

And 53 percent of Port Angeles School District students avail themselves of free and reduced lunches, schools Superintendent Martin Brewer said at the meeting.

The task force was created two years ago to find solutions to myriad child care issues, Sheedy said.

“Weekend care, early morning care, evening care, all-night care is needed, but there is hardly any available on the Peninsula,” she said.

“Without adequate child care, the work force is very limited, and it affects all aspects of business on the Peninsula, and not just the big employers, it’s across the board,” Sheedy added.

Keenan’s task force report could include proposing creation of an “alliance” of providers that could explore group purchasing, establish a substitute child care-worker list and promote workforce development, Sheedy said.

Keenan said she will release the report by April 30.

COVID-19 tightens child care screws

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult for child care providers to offer the service, a child care advocate said this week.

Provider requirements are contained in a 17-page document produced by the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, Joy Sheedy of Prevention Works! said on March 31.

“They had to reduce classroom size, reduce the adults in the classroom, and that’s really affected the bottom line,” she said at a Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce presentation.

The limited hours that schools are open to abide by COVID-19 health restrictions has added to the challenge presented by selecting from fewer and fewer providers, a meeting attendee said.

“So many of our staff, they don’t even know what to do right now,” she said.

Then there’s the ongoing issue of wages.

Many child care worker jobs tend to be low paying, from minimum wage to $15 an hour, Sheedy said.

She said they can expect to make minimum wage of $13.50 an hour to about $15.

But child care home providers can make $60,000 annually or more.

“They have the potential to make a good living,” Sheedy said.

Yvette Cline of Prevention Works! said low wages hurt the field.

“The people that are going into it are saying, ‘Why do I want to spend the money to get an education to work at minimum wage, which will not support my family?’ ” she said.

All child-care workers receive criminal background checks and must know first aid and how to administer CPR.

Family child care home providers must have a high school diploma and earn an Early Childhood Education (ECE) Initial Certificate by completing 12 ECE credits within five years of opening.

Home child-care assistant teachers, child care center lead teachers and assistant teachers must have a high-school diploma and the ECE Initial Certificate within five years of employment.

Additional information is available at dcyf.wa.gov.

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